With Purim here, we’re due to have another debate about whether Esther’s a good feminist who should be emulated or a child sex slave who should be pitied, and on whether Vashti’s a feminist hero or an evil queen — and I’m so over the latter.
In the actual text of the Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is unequivocally a heroine by any modern standard. Historical attempts to vilify her are the result of a combination of fear of women in power, xenophobia toward non-Jewish women, and the trope that there can be only one Good Girl in a story.
But what does the Book of Esther actually say about Vashti herself? Not much. The megillah tells us that the king threw a banquet, everyone got very drunk, and the palace stewards were ordered to comply with every man’s wishes. At the same time, Queen Vashti threw a banquet for women in the royal palace. On the seventh day, when the king was sufficiently drunk, he ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing her crown (and presumably only her crown), but she refused.
That’s the whole of Vashti’s actions in the story: She gives a banquet for the women and she refuses to come “display her beauty.”
The story records plenty of discussion of her actions afterward, mostly in the form of men spluttering “How dare she!”s, but all we’re given about what Vashti herself does is those two things.
In this plain reading, Vashti is a hero. She throws a separate party for the ladies, which has the practical result of ensuring they’re not putting up with the predations of drunken men who expect to have their every wish fulfilled. When she’s given an objectifying and potentially humiliating order, she refuses to obey.
The story doesn’t beat around the bush as to why all the men were upset by her refusal:
“For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!” (1:17-18)
The midrash is apparently just as horrified at the idea of women refusing to obey men’s orders, because it goes out of its way to insist that Vashti is utterly awful. The Talmud doesn’t waste any time in getting to the slut-shaming:
“The verse states: ‘Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women, in the royal house, which belonged to King Ahasuerus’ (Esther 1:9). The Gemara questions why she held the feast in the royal house, a place of men, rather than in the women’s house, where it should have been. Rava said in response: The two of them had sinful intentions. Ahasuerus wished to fornicate with the women, and Vashti wished to fornicate with the men.” (Megillah 12a)
Esther Rabbah, the midrash to the Book of Esther, announces that Vashti’s issue with the command wasn’t that it was humiliating, but that it wasn’t immodest enough:
“Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Hama bar Guria said in the name of Rav: she requested to enter even wearing bells like a prostitute, but they did not allow her.” (Esther Rabbah 3:13)
But the commentators don’t stop there. Rashi insists that not only did Vashti have an unattractive disease, but she abused her Jewish employees, making them work on Shabbat (1:12). Another midrash claims she held the banquet because it gave her the opportunity to hold other noblewomen hostage if there was a coup, and another claims she refused to appear naked because she had grown a tail.
It should be clear by now that the intentions of a lot of the classic commentaries weren’t exactly pure where Vashti is concerned. Given the brevity of the actual text of the Megillah when it comes to Vashti’s disobedience, it would have been just as possible for midrash to interpret in the opposite direction: to portray Ahasuerus’ reaction as cruel and expand the story out into one in which Esther tames the beast. Instead, Ahasuerus is absolved and Vashti is villainized, because defiance of male authority is apparently a bigger problem, in the eyes of the rabbis, than abuse by male authorities.
The eagerness to tear down women in authority by slut-shaming them becomes even more obvious when you look at the treatment of Vashti’s literary sisters.
In one midrash, she’s identified — along with Semiramis, Athaliah, and Jezebel — as one of four women who reigned in their own right. Semiramis ended up in Dante’s Inferno for “sensual sins” and Jezebel’s name has become so synonymous with unfaithful women that it’s the term for sex workers in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s painfully ironic given that, in the actual text of the Tanakh, adultery is probably the only sin Jezebel doesn’t commit. Like Lady Macbeth, she may be a schemer and a murderess, but she’s a faithful marriage partner. (Her portrayal as promiscuous probably has its origins in the bit of text noting that when she knew she was going to die, she put on makeup to ensure she went out in style.)
But despite the deep Rabbinic history to the contrary, it is possible for Vashti and Esther to both grace Purim celebrations and our imaginations as examples of different types of feminine heroism without denigrating one or the other. Rather, they’re a good example of how different levels of privilege suggest different ways to resist misogyny and oppression.
Vashti was a member of the elite. She was in a position of relative power in a patriarchal society, and she used that power to make a stand against being objectified, sexualized, and humiliated for male amusement.
In stark contrast, Esther was a member of a marginalized group facing genocide. She did what she had to in order to save her people.
In our society, the first woman to speak up about problems, to refuse to play nicely with the old boys’ club, or to refuse an unjust order is usually punished harshly. But sometimes that sacrifice makes it easier for the next woman to get others to listen. After all, Ahasuerus’ indignation at the idea of Vashti refusing to do as he tells her ultimately results in him doing exactly as Esther tells him.
Vashti didn’t sacrifice herself for Esther’s benefit, and Esther didn’t go into the palace to get Ahasuerus to be less of an asshole, but the fact that Esther was able to capitalize on Vashti’s fall doesn’t mean that they have to be seen as opponents or opposites.
We’ll know we’ve moved past our fear of women in power, our virgin-whore binaries, and our need to try to force women into competition when we get modern midrash in which Vashti and Esther can be allies, or maybe even friends.